READING THE BONES
by Sheila Finch
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Reading the Bones is Sheila Finch’s novel length expansion of her 1998 novella “Reading the Bones,” which won the Nebula Award. Told in two halves, the first part (which is the Nebula Award-winning story) tells the story of Ries Danyo and his hurried evacuation of two of his charges, Lita and Jilan Patel, after the natives of the planet turned unaccountably hostile. The second half concerns Lita’s return to the planet several years later.
Finch sets up an interesting culture of the humans on the planet Krishna (a.k.a. Not-Here). Her colonizing powers are Indian who have taken on the role and attitudes of the British during the eighteenth century. The alien Freh are given the role of the oppressed Indians from that time period. This is down well, if not unsubtly, without any nodding and eye-winking of characters recognizing the parallels.
The second half of the book, which is more philosophical, follows Lita, who has joined the Guild of Xenolinguists, to which Ries Danyo belonged. In this portion of the book, Finch is able to look more closely at the structure of language and the ways language and culture affect each other. While the first half of the book was driven by Ries Danyo’s need to escape from New Bombay, the second half is driven by less immediate concerns which are more satisfying overall, but tend not to have the same sense of urgency as the earlier portion. This causes the second half of the book to have a much slower pace, which can be disconcerting.
One of the problems with Reading the Bones is that it is clearly two different pieces. The first is the story of Ries Danyo and the second the story of Lita Patel and the First Among Mothers. The stories themselves are closely entwined, and the novel would have worked better if Finch had structured it so the two halves were more tightly woven together, perhaps moving the Ries Danyo section into the second section as a series of flashbacks. This would have required more work on Finch’s part, but would have made for a more cohesive novel, focusing it more on the characters of Lita and First Among Mothers while heightening the suspense which is otherwise telegraphed by knowledge of what occurred during the Ries Danyo segment.
Reading the Bones is filled with interesting, and well written, ideas: from the colonialist inversion to the idea of the Freh’s strange exile to Ursin Colm’s ideas about language formation. Finch handles all of these ideas quite well and presents them in an enjoyable manner which allows the reader to follow as she builds them up. From a narrative point of view, Reading the Bones could have been a tighter novel, filled with much more suspense than Finch seems willing to have provided.
The end result is a novel which has a lot of great ideas, but is also unevenly paced. While portions are gripping, Finch is unable to sustain that level of excitement throughout the book. Nevertheless, Reading the Bones is well worth reading and provides an addition to the original story which goes off in new directions.
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